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Chinese Eco-Cities

This article was written by Mara Hvistendahl in August 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

China.jpg In 2005, green architect William McDonough and British engineering firm Arup separately announced plans to build ambitious eco-cities housing up to 500,000 inhabitants on the mainland. For a few months following these announcements, coverage was enthusiastic (we have written about these cities a number of times, with earlier articles here and here). Much of this coverage was deserved. Designers are, after all, devising solutions to what promises to be one of the largest rural-to-urban migrations in history.

But in recent months, journalists have begun to look at how these cities are shaping up. After publishing a glowing article on McDonough's designs for sustainable Chinese cities in 2005, Newsweek ran an article this May that reads like a retraction. Its assessment of Huangbaiyu, the model village in McDonough's program and the first in a series of seven planned eco-cities, is bleak:

The project appears to be a mess. Construction of the 400 houses is way behind schedule. The 42 that have been built still have no heat, electricity or running water. Walls are already cracking and moisture seeps through the ceilings. According to people who've worked on the project, many of the houses don't adhere to the original specifications—meaning they could never achieve the energy savings they were meant to achieve. The biomass gasification facility meant to burn animal, human and agricultural waste, doesn't work. Not surprisingly, no one in the village has volunteered to move into the new community.

Last month, Popular Science published a feature that casts similar doubts on the prospects for China's eco-cities.

I saw Peter Head speak at April's Holcim Forum, a gathering of sustainability-minded architects and engineers, in Shanghai. During his presentation, he showed a video that had been produced by the Shanghai Industrial Investment Corporation, the developer responsible for Dongtan, the city Arup designed for an island outside of Shanghai. The city presented in the video suggested the myriad gated communities that surround Shanghai: gaudy and dramatic, with very little of the restraint and economy that most would associate with sustainable design.

That is precisely the problem in China. People in developed countries have had a few decades to try out and reject excess. It isn't just an awareness of environmental degradation that pushes us to go green; it's a knowledge, gleaned from firsthand experience, that conventional living generates a level of waste that makes us uncomfortable. In urban China, however, bigger is still better. Most middle-class Chinese are still preoccupied with finding ways to display their wealth, not minimize its impact on the world.

Such attitudes -- which are understandable, if not admirable -- are behind the problems now surfacing in the transformation of urban China. To accomplish their goals, Western designers working in China might partner with local government officials, as McDonough has done. But such officials might be more concerned with project success than with enforcing land rights or securing public participation -- also critical to creating healthy, enduring communities. On the other hand, another solution is to trust eco-city properties to the market, as Arup has done with Dongtan. Visitors to that project, which is now taking shape, decribe large single-family homes and suburban-style planning. Wired's feature on Dongtan suggests that SIIC and Arup differed on what they wanted out of Dongtan early on:

Part of the problem was that SIIC wasn't sure yet what it wanted. Its people talked about Dongtan as an eco-city, but they also talked about it as a quaint green suburb or as Shanghai's Hamptons, a place for the city's wealthy to flee for the weekend. They seemed to have good intentions but little direction.

The BBC alludes to similar problems in its recent article on Dongtan.

But the stream of Chinese eco-cities won't stop. Last month, New York architect Kevin Kennon announced a green community for the resort island of Hainan. We should expect -- and hope -- to see more in years to come. Why? For people interested in seeing China go green (and, given its share of global emissions, we all should be), there isn't any other option. The alternative to massive eco-cities is not slow, organic development but massive conventional cities, with all their attendant ills. Urbanization is simply occurring too rapidly in China to allow for anything else. The hope for China now is that is that its designers -- Western architects and local politicians alike -- will learn from their mistakes.

Image: Dongtan Marsh. Credit: flickr/laughterwyn

China Eco-Cities Update is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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